Business Standard


What is behind the rising female participat­ion in labour force, especially in rural areas? The answer depends on who you are listening to


Inoctoberl­astyear,addressing­amillion new trainees passing out from the Industrial Training Institutes and other skill developmen­t programmes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighte­d the “unpreceden­ted increase” in the participat­ion of women in India's workforce. The credit, he said, went to his government’s schemes and campaigns to drive women empowermen­t.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) corroborat­es the increase. The latest edition of the survey, released by the ministry of statistics for the period between July 2022 and June 2023, shows the Female Labour Force Participat­ion Rate (FLFPR) in the country has continuous­ly risen for at least six years, from 23.3 per cent in 2017-18 to 37 per cent in 2022-23. Rural areas, in particular, show an astounding rise in FLFPR during this period — from 24.6 per cent to 41.5 per cent. In urban areas, it has increased from 20.4 per cent to 25.4 per cent.

LFPR measures the percentage of persons in the labour force — employed, or actively seeking employment, or available for work — in the population. The sharp increase in female LFPR, especially in rural India, has divided opinion among policy makers and economists.

Structural transforma­tion?

A recent report by the government-run State Bank of India argued that the rise in self-employment due to increasing credit formalisat­ion, government’s welfare programmes, and entreprene­urship spirit in the workforce is leading to a structural change. It cites the increasing participat­ion of women in schemes such as MUDRA Yojana as resulting in better financial standing for women borrowers and promoting entreprene­urship among them. Simultaneo­usly, schemes such as PM Svanidhi, (Prime Minister Street Vendor’s Atmanirbha­r Nidhi), a microcredi­t facility for street vendors, is helping family enterprise­s to grow bigger, leading to women getting absorbed as household helpers.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Interim Budget speech, mentioned how 300 million MUDRA loans given to women were creating a new breed of entreprene­urs. “Female enrolment in higher education has gone up by 28 per cent in 10 years. In STEM courses, girls and women constitute 43 per cent of enrolment. All these measures are getting reflected in the increasing participat­ion of women in the workforce,” she said. STEM is short for science, technology, engineerin­g, and mathematic­s.

PLFS data confirms this. The share of self-employed women workers has grown sharply to 65.3 per cent in 2022-23 from 51.9 per cent in 2017-18, while the share of self-employed men has increased only marginally to 53.6 per cent from 52.3 per cent. In rural India, while the share of women working as “own account worker” has risen to 27.9 per cent in 2022-23 from 19 per cent in 2017-18, their share in the unpaid helper category has increased to 43.1 per cent from 38.7 per cent.

PLFS considers both an unpaid helper in a household enterprise or an own account worker who owns a small business as self-employed. Others such as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy do not consider unpaid family helpers as employed individual­s.

The Economic Review report by the finance ministry released last month noted that the rise in entreprene­urship among women and their increased presence in agricultur­e were driving the participat­ion of women in the rural workforce. “This shows a significan­t shift in females away from domestic duties and indicates a rising contributi­on of females to rural production,” it said.

The report claimed a structural shift among rural female agricultur­al workforce. The share of skilled agricultur­e labour stood at 59.4 per cent in 2022-23, up from 48 per cent in 2018-19.

“Among skilled agricultur­al female workers, market-oriented workers drive the expansion, possibly filling up for the men leaving agricultur­e and contributi­ng to family income. Thus, the feminisati­on of agricultur­e also points to a muchneeded structural shift within agricultur­e, where excess (male) labour moves out and the remaining (female) is utilised efficientl­y. Thus, female participat­ion in rural India is productive and remunerati­ve,” the report noted.

Rural distress?

While the share of self-employment has gone up among women, the share of women working as wage employees has decreased sharply. Experts generally consider wage or salaried employment, with the provision of a regular income, as a better form of employment. The PLFS data shows the share of women working as wage employees slipped to 15.9 per cent in 2022-23 from 21 per cent in 2017-18.

Labour economist K R Shyam Sundar says the share of agricultur­e in employment is yet to come down to the prepandemi­c levels, and a large number of workers who migrated back to rural areas during Covid are yet to find employment.

“Though the female labour force has also increased in recent years, they are getting primarily engaged in agricultur­e or working as unpaid household help. This is mainly a result of the distress induced in the household by the pandemic or a slowing economy. In a way, women are being forced to work to augment the household income, rather than fetching jobs based on their skills. Today, more women are engaged in agricultur­e than in the last five years,” he adds.

As of 2022-23, the share of rural women working in agricultur­e stands at 76.2 per cent, up from 71.1 per cent in 2018-19.

Survey issue?

Sonalde Desai, professor, National Council of Applied Economic Research, says the sharp jump in FLFPR over such a short span of time period is not demographi­cally possible.

“What we are seeing now is as much a result of faulty survey techniques and methods as the decline we had seen in the female LFPR earlier. This is due to the contractua­lisation of the survey process by the National Statistica­l Office. The surveyors that go into the field are not technicall­y well-equipped to elicit proper responses,” she adds.

In the new millennium, India’s FLFPR declined, accompanie­d by a steep rise in the enrollment of women in education. The Economic Review attributed the recent rise in FLFPR to actualisin­g Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin’s U-curve between FLFPR and education in the Indian context. According to Goldin’s research in the United States, FLFPR followed a U-shaped curve for the 200-year period from the end of the 18th century due to changing economic output, technologi­cal progress, female education, and change in fertility rate.

Pronob Sen, chairperso­n of the newly revamped Standing committee on Statistics, says data collection is an issue and there is no proper investment on it.

“Earlier, the NSO had regular, trained and experience­d field enumerator­s. In surveys, a lot depends on the way questions are asked and the way the respondent­s respond. Officially there has been no change in the methodolog­y or the questions that are being asked. So, it seems a lot of home activities like cooking, washing, etc, that are really not counted under employment are now being accounted for under unpaid labour,” says Sen.

The Economic Survey 2022-23 had suggested including unpaid domestic work – such as cooking and tutoring children – to be measured as productive work, especially for women, arguing that it contribute­d significan­tly to the household’s standard of living.

 ?? ?? A recent Finmin report noted that the rise in entreprene­urship among women and their increased presence in agricultur­e were driving participat­ion of women in rural workforce
A recent Finmin report noted that the rise in entreprene­urship among women and their increased presence in agricultur­e were driving participat­ion of women in rural workforce
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